How to Photograph Zoo Animals – It’s Not About Looking Cute

Scarlet Macaw, Buffalo Zoo

When visiting the zoo, make the most of your photos. Taking photos of wildlife is not about looking cute. It is not about looking pretty.

In my last post I showed you how Wild Spirit was about respecting nature and nature’s creatures with the passion to protect and care for them. The natural landscape was protected as well, after all, the property sustains and shelters birds and animals in the wild. So do many of our gardens. Wildlife can be right outside your back door.

I think that many photographing wild animals don’t necessarily make the connection to having a responsibility to protect places that need protecting, especially if they photograph exclusively in a zoo. It is too far removed from the habitats in which these animals live to get an appreciation for what life is like in these places. It is often harsh, trying and is rapidly disappearing.

Scarlet Ibis, M&T Bank Rainforest Falls Exhibit

Photographing wildlife is much more than just taking pretty pictures. It can be about endangered species, or changing people’s minds on conservation.  It can be changing attitudes on using pesticides and herbicides worldwide. Photography can be a catalyst for protecting environments that we know very little about. Photography has the power to elicit change.

Riding through the Cloud Forest in Monteverde, Costa Rica. I was there on a research project designing with the environment, wildlife and habitat, and educating youth as critical components.

People who spend time outdoors gardening, hiking or bird-watching are generally accepting of the responsibility of caring for the environment.

Ocelot, M&T Bank Rainforest Falls Exhibit

If you read my post, W4W – Time, you can understand my views on animals kept in zoos and I just took you to a rehabilitation center. These two places exist for reasons other than pleasing a photographer. Both invest in education.

Golden Lion Tamarin, Buffalo Zoo

Photographing at game parks on the other hand, exist only for casual clickers and have no real purpose beyond photography in my opinion. At these game parks, I see many species of animals in the same field exhibits, ones that would never, or should ever be housed together. Some think these places are better than zoos, but for this reason I find them a major concern.

Sure animals have more room to roam, but at what cost? If mixed herds are stressed to what comprises the herd, then this may not be an ideal life either.

I just saw a photo on another blogger’s site taken at a game park not too far from here. All the various species were gathered at the cars looking for a handout of kibble. All I could think of was how dangerous a few of those animals were (male elk with a big spread of antlers and a mature buffalo), and they were mixed with tiny, defenseless animals (possibly muntjak deer).

I did like the Florida, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park though, perhaps it was the size of the attraction or maybe Disney’s attention to detail. The animals seemed happier.

Zoos are not ideal for the animals but they do serve to protect animals that are endangered. Unfortunately, the animals suffer from boredom and it is a shame to keep many of the species that we do.

For the reason of breeding programs to help combat endangerment alone there is a benefit to zoos. Zoos also educate, another plus.

And I view photos of the animals the same way. The photos may tell a story of a creature on the brink of extinction someday. And unfortunately, photos may be all that remains of certain animals, even if they look a bit devoid of emotion in the images.

White Faced Saki, M&T Bank Rainforest Falls Exhibit

When you photograph truly wild animals, you need to know as much about them and their habits as you can. That is so much more difficult than shooting animals in a zoo or rehabilitation center. But it helps to know behavior in those places as well, like when I mentioned last post of getting the varied expressions.

Ring-Tailed Lemur, Buffalo Zoo

For example, wild birds like to keep a safe distance, so it is best to move slowly and not in a straight line toward a bird. Birds see minute movements and readily detect direct eye contact and view it as a threat. I find this especially true with raptors, more so than birds accustomed to human contact who are more likely to dismiss our actions.

Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, my backyard

Many say they can not get close to hummingbirds and the birds leave if they are outside.  I find I can sit in the yard by knowing their behavior. Hummingbirds are territorial and need to feed very often. They will get comfortable around people they see in the garden regularly, like the little Ruby Throated above. I was only seven feet away.

The key is being out there before they are scheduled to arrive and make no quick movements in their direction. See my post, Photographing a Hummingbird in Flight – Useful Tips.

Roseate Spoonbill, M&T Bank Rainforest Falls Exhibit

To get more meaningful images, try to take a profile photo, possibly showing just one of the animal’s eyes, or better yet, a full view of its face with both eyes visible.

Snowy Owl, Wild Spirit Education, image from Helping Wildlife and Bettering the Habitat

Peafowl, Buffalo Zoo

Flying birds make for good action shots. Raptors such as hawks, like to perch high to watch and wait for an unsuspecting moving meal below. You’ll know when they’re ready to take off because you will often see bird droppings before the lift off.

Tips like these will be in a future post on photographing birds. I love to study their behavior in addition to photographing them. It makes anticipating what they might do a little more reliable. Having my own bird helps in the understanding too.

Monteverde , Costa Rica, plan a trip to where interesting animals are located!

White-Faced Saki, M&T Bank Rainforest Falls Exhibit

Here are some tips I learned from shooting at the zoo. Some are tips that help when you are out in the field too.

I have been photographing animals my whole life, so these are things I learned from over thirty years with my Nikon cameras. I am not a professional and don’t pretend to be one, but sometimes an amateur can help out another with problems they may encounter more easily.

We learn from trial and error and often run into things a seasoned pro might overlook as too routine or simple. Being an architect and Master Gardener, I know this all too well. You just don’t know what others might know or not know.

I have been getting emails from individuals asking for my ‘advice’ on photographing in certain situations. I am doing my best to give tips in a way that is both accurate and easily understandable.

My next ‘photo’ post will be on macro photography, and after that, one on shooting birds. Both are posts that directly relate to gardens. You might find useful tips you did not know.

Lion, Buffalo Zoo

I am trying to put together posts that will really help out beginners. I encourage everyone to go to the pro sites too.

Now for zoo tips…

  • When shooting in a zoo, like most of these images, I like to shoot a shallow depth of field as it isolates the animals and directs the viewer’s attention to the subject. More importantly, it takes the ‘zoo’ out of the image. But I do it too when I shoot the animals in the field. There, it is more for removing a distracting or busy landscape.
  • One thing to note. Always be honest where your images are taken. Just because you remove traces of the physical zoo structures, does not mean the images should be falsely portrayed. I find this respectful of those photographers that take photos on location, where it is sometimes painstaking to get those images.

Male Lion, Buffalo Zoo

  • I take two cameras, each with a different lens. One is for getting in a little of their environment, and the other is for zooming in and removing their surroundings. It is for extending my view too since often the animals are a distance away.

Snow Leopard, Buffalo Zoo

  • I find when shooting through a fence at a zoo, it is best not to be really close to it. It is more for the sake of the animals, not the photograph. They are less fearful if you are a few steps back. The animal has to be a distance back from the fence as well. It is best at ten feet or so, too close and the fence becomes part of the image, like shown above. That photo was taken for my ‘editorial’ post on zoos, so it was making a strong point to supplement the text.
  • I usually shoot handheld as opposed to using a tripod. Our local zoo has let me bring in a tripod, but many do not. When visiting zoos across the country and beyond, I never even consider bringing in the tripod. Some exhibits even post for no baby strollers either, so you have to be aware of their restrictions. The idea is not to upset the animals.
  • That goes for flash too. I always shoot at a lower shutter speed and raise the ISO to avoid using flash. The issue with flash has more to do with the environment rather than the animals. The reflective glass is the problem, but you can reduce that if you stand at an angle to the glass. Try about 45°. The Saki, Lemur and Tamarin were all shot behind glass.

Polar Bear at feeding time, Buffalo Zoo

  • Timing is everything.  Animals know when it’s feeding time, and that’s when they’re going to be their most responsive to people. I sometimes follow the guys with the buckets. You should see the animals come to life.

Spotted Hyena taking a siesta at the Buffalo Zoo

  • When it comes to the light, overcast days are the best for photographing at the zoo if you can’t get there early morning or late afternoon.  Lousy weather days are good because many animals are active when it’s snowy, rainy or cooler and overcast in the warm months. Clouds make a great diffuser. A day threatening rain will mean fewer people. When it’s snowing, animals like the snow leopards and polar bears are usually out enjoying the day.
  • Pay attention to the light while you are shooting. Bright light means a faster shutter speed but if the light is harsh, you’ll end up with an image with blown out highlights and very dark shadows, like the polar bear above.
  • Buying a membership is a good idea because it allows access whenever the member wants, plus there are other benefits, like private events. It is unlikely you will get really great images your first time at the zoo. Members have access anytime the zoo is open and that lets you pick your best weather conditions.

Golden Lion Tamarin, Buffalo Zoo

I found a new site that I like very much and you might as well. Nature and Photography has a lot of good advice and is very well written.  Rob Sheppard is a naturalist, nature  photographer and author. I have seen his work before and read articles of his, but did not know he had a blog. If you like nature and photography, you will surely love this site.

What caught my eye was his wonderful work, but also the similarity of some of his shots to my own. The above image is from my post, Dragonflies, A Photo Shoot at the Lake. But his post has many shots of dragonflies, Photographing Dragonflies. I guess I am on the right track. Go and see. If you like my photos, go see a professional shooting many of the same, only with the expertise of being a naturalist and a pro photographer.

I will be away next week and will see you all when I get back. I will have garden walk posts scheduled in my absence, plus a rant called All Tech and No Talent on a popular trend in photo sharing. Of course, it should rattle a few that love the app.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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48 Responses to How to Photograph Zoo Animals – It’s Not About Looking Cute

  1. sharon says:

    wow Im gonna paint that bird!

    • I can say as an artist myself, I could put paint to canvas in most of them. I have painted the zebras, polar bears, and the bison (which I sold). I have drawn all the big cats and giraffe, plus countless other animals too.

  2. A.M.B. says:

    These are fabulous pictures! That’s a snowy owl with attitude! I share your ambivalence about zoos. Overall, I appreciate their educational purpose. They teach us some very important lessons and so do your pictures and posts. Thanks!

  3. janegerow says:

    Love the photos! Our moto at home is Honey, We Bought A Zoo. We have so many farm animals and I wish I could take such awesome pictures like these!

  4. Emily Heath says:

    When visiting San Diego zoo I got quite annoyed because there was a lady at the koala enclosure repeatedly taking flash photos, even though there were signs up saying this hurts the koalas’ eyes. And her photos were useless anyway as the flash was bouncing off the glass. Your photos are a world away from that – you take the feelings of the animals into consideration and it shows.

    • I have been to the San Diego Zoo too. I usually go to all the zoos in cities I visit. Yesterday I saw parents let a three or four year old mercilessly chase the peafowl. That is why I have the image with the wings splayed. I wanted to lasso the kid and tie him to a tree.

  5. Beautiful photos, good food for thought, and some really useful tips. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Going Native says:

    Wonderful photos, as always. I haven’t visited a zoo since I was a child. I think their purpose has changed since then. I hope to see all the animals I want to see in the wild someday. I nice goal to have. –

    • I too want to see animals in the wild, but good luck with that. I am planning a trip to Yellowstone for that sole purpose. It could be a complete washout on the animals, even though I would like to go during migration. But taking photos at zoos, like the wordy post said, is great experience for learning about the animals. My post was not so much about the photos as it was about the message. I just thought some might like to know how I approach my photography. It is with far more than the just getting the photo and walking away.

  7. wow, zoo animals this time! beautiful!

    • The animals are beautiful, but not the existence that they lead. It is really evident in the ocelot’s face as it paced the same path over and over. I took maybe thirty images of it and not one had an expression that did not look downtrodden and bored.

      • I feel that way when I see caged birds unable to use their wings which are a major part of their existence…boredom is another thing but to be curtailed of freedom…sigh.

  8. Every image, just beautiful, and your tips are great! I just posted a dark, not that great image of a Bald Eagle soaring the edge of my garden…, but I was so thrilled to get it. Hope to really work on my photography over the next year! I will be going over all your tutorials! Thank you.

    • I will be by to see your eagle. I know how hard it is to get those images unless you are in Alaska at the right time of year where they are fishing in numbers. There is a golden eagle at the farm that never comes close enough to photograph. I have given up on it. My best bet would be to find the nest, but even then it would be very high in the sky. I saw one in Maine too, and it was close enough, but by the time I got may camera set, it was gone. I got a blurry and dark image that I ended up trashing.

  9. b-a-g says:

    I like the way you captured the owl’s stare. I wonder what he’s thinking.

  10. I love all the photos the red parrot is amazing colors. Thank you for sharing with us.

  11. ..really love the colours in your shots, esp the macaw right at the beginning! absolutely beautiful…although i will say that zoos are, and have always been a firm no-no for me…thats just my own view, not a slur on anyone or any organisation….for some reason, ive always imagined myself being shut up in a cage all my life…being let out to roam around in a slightly bigger cage…not good at all…but then, if some of these animals were out in the wild, they would probably be killed for their furs, teeth, feathers or whatever…..what a dilemma…do we let them die a quick death at the hands of poachers…or let them die a lingering death in a cage…very sad. however, to get back to the photos here…absolutely fabulous…can we have more please!

  12. Pingback: The last days of our summer bees | Miss Apis Mellifera

  13. Lovley photos of such great animals. Thanks for more good tips. Will head over to Rob’s website for more photo assistance.

  14. Barbie says:

    I have never been a fan of zoos, but I must say it is where you will see animals you will probably never see in your life – the Saki & the Taki are unusual and comical animals. Love the photography! THank you

  15. Amazing photos as always. I love taking photos in zoos. I always note that. I’m not out on some safari. Ha!

    • I feel so bad for the animals in zoos, but I too enjoy taking their photos. I try to capture expressions that are of then being anything but bored, but that is difficult. Most of my images do not show much joy.

  16. Great advice Donna and as always your pics show so much of the personality of the animals…that is why I love your shots…not a fan of animals in captivity but understand the work zoos are doing. I’ll check out the nature photography site too…sorry we will be missing each other but maybe I will finally get to one of those great garden walks next year.

  17. Hazelina says:

    Reblogged this on Hazelina and commented:
    Great photo! 😀

  18. Marisa says:

    Donna, there is so much brilliant advice in your post, I hope a little will sink in in practice. I’m working short term in Jakarta, and I’m heading off this weekend with a colleague on a river safari in central Kalimantan (Borneo) next weekend to see the orangutans. Mostly we are visiting ‘rehabiliation’ places, but I expect there will be lots of other wildlife to see. I just hope I can do some of these beautiful creatures justice. I’m hopeless with butterflies and can only imagine how dreadful my hummingbird attempts would be.

  19. Good work Donna. Very interesting. But I don’t understand how a tripod can upset animals? They afraid it?

    • I never did ask zoos why they forbid tripods. My assumption is when they are closed up, they have a resemblance to weapons to an animal. Many animals are guided and kept in line with a long, straight, pointed stick with a sharp hook on the end. It discourages bad behavior when it is used. For them to be fearful, they must have experienced something that once posed a danger. My cockatoo was wild caught. I quickly found out that I could not use welding gloves to keep me safe. The gloves used by the captors brought back harrowing images to him. I had to train him glove free. The gentler touch is the better option. He had to have been handled in a hurtful manner to act so incredibly scared.

      I think the strollers are what riles the animals. I saw a woman with a baby in a stroller pushed up to the hyena enclosure. The hyenas were visibly stalking the child. I could not believe the parent thought this funny. I would have never trusted that the hyenas could not jump the span of the moat. The tripods I have found have much to do with legal liability, in the case where it would trip a patron. They are forbidden during events even at our Botanical Garden, but monopods are allowed.

  20. nicole says:

    Outstanding Donna! That Macaw is insane! WOW!

  21. Shawn Cooper says:

    A photographer must always keep dynamic thoughts in his/her mind to execute them in his/her works in order to spread them and create awareness about the condition of animals living there in zoo.

  22. Brian Comeau says:

    “Photography has the power to elicit change”. Wonderful statement.
    It has always been my desire that this is what my photography does for the viewer. It took me too long to appreciate what was all around me. I hope that my images help others realize what beauty we have all around us and to take better care of our planet before it is too late.
    As for zoos, like you I have mixed feelings. I would much rather see an animal wild. But for rehab they have a place (and the education that they provide hopefully helps the greater cause). Zoos have provided some wonderful times for me and my family. I have had the opportunity to show my children some of God’s amazing creatures that they would likely never see.
    Beautiful images and beautifully written Donna.

    • Thank you very much, Brian. I know you feel the same because it shows through in your photography. Zoos are like prison for animals, but may be the only hope someday for certain species, and they are invaluable resources for children.

  23. Beautiful photography as always. I recall being at the Buffalo zoo some 20 years back, looks like thing have gotten a lot better.

    One of the challenges zoos face is how to keep so many animals engaged and cognitively active in such limited space. The welfare of an animal must include its psychological and emotional well being, not just the body. Fortunately most keepers seem aware of this and work hard in maintaining the animals engaged in their environment.

    Since your expertise is gardening, you are probably keenly aware of the important role of invertebrates in the health of a garden; they always get left out of zoos even though they play major role in the ecosystem. According to the ZSL over 12000 species are threatened with extinction.

    It might be a little late to go macro in the garden, maybe next spring. 🙂,1987,AR.html

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